Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Preparing for 25 March...

Lord Kerr has an article in today's FT about what our response should be to Angela Merkel's proposals on 25 March. (He's more of a Europhile than I) He makes four suggestions. The European Council shouldn't change its president every six months, meaning that each of the 27 countries is at the helm every 14 years, as this makes dealings with other countries inefficient. The voting system should be fairer: under the Nice treaty Luxembourg and Malta have one vote per 100,000 citizens whereas the UK, France and Italy have one per 2m and Germany has one per 3m. The subsidiarity mechanism should be welcomed because it gives national parliaments a say and greater powers over the Brussels legislative process. (I cannot see any reason why English law should be subservient to European law) He thinks they should delete the principle of conferral which says that the EU may act only within the powers conferred to it by the member states and include a secession clause in order to remove worries about a European superstate. (Presumably, however, Germany would like to see a European superstate?) The outcome of the French election will be key: Sego wants more social provisions and has promised another referendum whereas Sarko would probably go along with Germany's proposals and thinks he can avoid having a second referendum.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Beware the European Constitution

I heard Lord Rees-Mogg speak at lunchtime about the prospects for a Conservative win at the next election. Part of his speech was about Europe and he said that the Treaty of Rome will be 50 years old on March 25th and on that day in 2007 Chanceller Merkel will publish the Berlin Declaration. He thinks this will aim to restore key parts of the European Constitution and that we'll be asked to support it. Europe is an uncomfortable topic for Conservatives but he thinks David Cameron should make the Party's stance very clear: no way!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Gun culture

Radio 4 on Saturday interviewed various young women from council estates in south London about the effect of guns on their lives. They said that firearms are commonplace: it costs £3000 to buy one and £50 to rent one and many single mothers keep them in their flats on behalf of men as they are paid a weekly fee for this service and are glad of the extra income. One woman had been imprisoned for 4 years for possessing a gun. She said her then boyfriend had started dealing in cannabis, moved on to harder drugs and was then making so much money that he needed a gun to protect himself. She had been very happy to look after it for him and had been seduced by the glamourous lifestyle although her spell in prison changed her mind about that and the boyfriend.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Sir Harry Hinsley

Last night I went to the launch party of a book about my old college, St. John's College, Cambridge. There were reminiscences of many of the great and the good, and the not so good. One of the great was Harry Hinsley, Master when I was up. His intelligence work at Bletchley Park during the war was invaluable to the country. He made his name there under unfortunate circumstances in 1940 when he warned the Admiralty that it would be foolhardy for British ships to sail down from Norway because the radio traffic indicated that the Germans were ready to ambush them. This advice was ignored, possibly because he was only 22 at the time. As a result HMS Glorious and two destroyers were lost. After this event, he was taken seriously and messages would go from the Admiralty to the Navy with the words, "Source: Hinsley" at the bottom. He would speak on the phone regularly to Churchill, beginning conversations with the words, "Prime Minister? Hinsley here." These experiences coloured his style of lecturing in History when he returned to Cambridge after the war and he'd say "So here we have Charlemagne. Imagine he's on the blower to the Pope. What would he say?"

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Just can't get the staff these days...

The poor residents of Kensington & Chelsea are now finding that their milkmen, window cleaners and gardeners are adding £8 to their bills. Perhaps they could apply to Chavez for assistance?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Venezualan aid for London

Can you believe this? Venezuala has signed an agreement to subsidise the fuel bill for London buses by up to £16m a year to fund cheap travel for the poor. Ken says the 20% discount will fund half price fares for 250,000 Londoners on income support. In return, Ken's transport chief, Peter Hendy, will set up an office in Caracas to impart his traffic management expertise. They'll look forward to congestion charges there then.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Iraq and Afghanistan

I went to listen to John Major speak at lunchtime. What joy to hear the polish and wit of an elder statesman! He made some interesting comments on Iraq and Afghanistan, both places where we have insufficient troops and inadequate resources. Iraq was entered on falsehoods. Casualties and civil violence are growing but the Iraqi government won't let the army enter the worst areas because it would be "inflammatory". Unemployment is 50-60%, inflation 70% and resentment is focussed on the coalition. There is a double dilemma: if we leave there may well be civil war or a militant Islamic government, if we stay, the resentment grows everyday.
Nobody has a clear idea of our mission in Afghanistan: is it to promote democracy, to build a nation, to fight against terrorism or to capture OBL? Historically it has been a tough place to fight: think of the Afghan Wars and the fact that in 1979-89 the Russians had 120,000 soldiers there and had to leave with their tails between their legs. We have 6000 men (half of whom are support staff) in one of the most dangerous parts without enough helicopters or body armour. The coalition forces are painted as invading interlopers and there is a danger that the aggrieved population will turn back to support the Taliban. He heard one spokesman out there telling the people that the West gives $50bn aid to the Third World (as JM asked, where's the Second World?) and yet spends seven times that on agricultural subsidies to an already well-fed Europe and US.
He thinks that we need to win the hearts and minds of the people and that there can't be a military victory without an intellectual victory. We need to have dialogue. To quote Churchill, "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war." When the IRA was bombing the UK, JM started to have discussions with them which was controversial at the time but which began the peace process.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Private equity

There has been much press recently about the private equity sector as the GMB has been lobbying Gordon Brown to prevent private equity companies from being able to offset the interest charges on loans they take out to buy companies, against tax. The GMB objects to the corporate ethics of the sector which buys badly managed companies, sells off the unprofitable assets, very often causing redundancies, improves the remaining business and returns the profits to its shareholders. The union believes that this creates unnecessary unemployment and distress and that the Government should do more to protect workers' rights by making such deals more expensive and therefore less attractive to the private equity companies. Jon Moulton, Managing Partner of Alchemy, thinks that the level of debt in the private equity sector is worryingly high. Banks are eager to lend to them, looking at the forecasts of improved cashflow and apparently easy repayment of the loans. However, in an environment of rising interest rates, not only does the cost of capital rise but the slower economy may mean that cashflow forecasts are too optimistic so there is a double squeeze. The GMB has been conducting a personal vendetta against the Managing Partner of Permira, Damon Buffini, an alumnus of my old college at Cambridge, and they sent a camel to his local church. I'm trying to find out if they sent a needle as well.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Rob Roy

My reading's travelled from seventeenth century France to eighteenth century Scotland. Sir Walter Scott's a highly entertaining writer with some magnificent character sketches and social satire. The Scottish dialect's hard work, though. Who can translate this sentence: "he's sic an auld-farran lang-headed chield as never took up the trade o' cateran in our time; mony a daft reik he has played...a' fu' o' venturesome deeds and escapes, sic as folks tell ower at a winter-ingle in the daft days"?

Lost in translation

One of my colleagues is over from Milan and she was telling me about the beauty of Sardinia where she has an apartment near an amazing pink beach, appropriately called La Spiaggia Rosa. "It's completely pink because of the ostriches," she said. "Ostriches?" I queried, "Do you mean flamingos?" "No, ostriches!" she replied and asked "What do you call the packaging of an ostrich?" Puzzled by her drift, I unhelpfully suggested "An egg?" She then said the word in Italian and all became clear. The sand is pink because of many pulverised oyster shells so the beach has a mother-of-pearl gleam and the water is translucent.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Antony and Cleopatra

I went to see the excellent RSC production of Antony & Cleopatra at the Novello theatre on Tuesday with Patrick Stewart playing a fine Antony. What makes it a good rather than a great play? The high comic element with the witty Enobarbus, the mood swings of Cleopatra (which must have been all the more amusing in Shakespeare's time with a man playing the part) and the farcical parts of the soothsayer and the asp (or "the worm" as it's called) carrier all mitigate the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. Antony and Cleo are quite happy to betray each other for political ends with a cynicism which is missing in the teenagers Romeo and Juliet. One possible lesson from the play is that singularity of purpose, in this case of Octavian, is superior to split motives, those of Antony who still wants political power but who is also in thrall to Cleopatra. Nevertheless the play contains some brilliant lines including "Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite varieties" and the scene of Cleopatra's dismay when she hears that Antony has married Octavian's sister behind her back is brilliant.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Chinese supermarkets

There's quite an amusing article in today's FT about foreign supermarkets setting up shop in China. Apparently, we Brits go on weekly supermarket trips while the French visit out-of-town hypermarkets for basics or big ticket items but go to their local delis, patisseries and greengrocers for the rest. The Germans, meanwhile, go to supermarkets to buy bargain champagne, and presumably beer. The Chinese, on the other hand, are passionate about freshness and cheap food. Their hypermarkets have tanks of perch, eels, turtles, bullfrogs and crabs all swimming together. Customers can either net their own in a bag of water or have it killed on site.Most customers at Tesco's Shanghai shop arrive on foot or by bicycle or take the hypermarket bus service which is popular with pensioners in summer who like to visit the air-conditioned supermarkets to escape the stifling heat. The range of goods sold differs widely across the country. In the north they sell shampoo by sachet rather than bottle because people don't have hot water at home so go to the public baths to wash their hair once or twice a week. The CEO of Wal-Mart in China says they used to sell dog meat (the second most popular meat in winter) until there was too much opposition at home from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Saxon Kings

Winchester Cathedral houses the bones of five Saxon Kings: Cynegils (611-43), Cenwalh (643-72), Egbert (802-39), Ethelwulf (839-58) and Canute and his Queen Emma (1016-35). They are contained in five mortuary chests together with the bones of a couple of early Bishops and the Norman King William II, also known as Rufus (1087-1100). The reason for this mixture is that Cromwell's men opened the chests and hurled the bones at the Cathedral windows to smash them and they were later recovered by locals and replaced in the surviving chests but it was impossible to tell whose bones belonged to whom. King Cynegils was converted to Christianity by St Birinus around 635. Birinus became the first Bishop of Dorchester and towards the end of his life he dedicated the first church in Winchester and his relics were brought to Winchester from Dorchester around 690, although it is believed that they were taken back to Dorchester in the thirteenth century.
Another King who's been much disturbed is Alfred the Great (858-99). He was first buried in the New Minster, the Saxon church which was on the site of the Cathedral. When William the Conqueror started to build the Cathedral, the Saxon church was moved outside the city walls to Hyde Abbey and King Alfred, his wife Lady Ealhswith and their son Edward the Elder were reburied there in 1110. The Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII and the graves were lost although King Alfred's bones were supposedly recovered and lie in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Benedict's church which is next to the ruins of the Abbey.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Chinese reality

A schoolmaster told me that he was preparing one of the boys for an interview to read Chinese at Oxford. They were discussing Chinese characters and talking about the descriptive elements within those characters. In the textbook they were looking at, there was the character for "reality" which was composed of three elements: a table at the bottom, an eye above it and the number 10 above the eye. This was supposed to mean that in the view of the Chinese, something is considered to be real if 10 eyes (presumably 5 people) agree that they see it. In the interview, the question about the make-up of Chinese characters came up and the boy trotted off that example. "Oh not that old bluff!" the interviewer exclaimed, "Give me another example!" Who was bluffing whom?
Rather different from my friend's daughter's interview the other week for St Paul's Girls' School. She was asked to comment on a photograph showing Father Christmas holding a kit kat bar with a sign at the bottom saying "Only 106 calories". I don't know how obsessive Paulinas are about their weight.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Perugian football

My colleague from Perugia has been telling me the scandals of his home football team. When there was the match rigging scandal, a couple of years ago, when referees were discovered to have been accepting bribes to fix results, Perugia was at the top of League B and trying to get into League A. The President of the club, Signor Gaucci, was involved in this scam and swiftly emigrated to Santa Domingo, leaving his two sons to be arrested and imprisoned in Italy. The Perugian team was promptly relegated to the bottom of League C2. Another reason for Perugia's team to be notorious is that Colonel Gaddafi's son used to play for them. Apparently he was an awful player but was good for the local economy as he rented two floors of the best hotel while he was there.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Stargazy pie

Scott's restaurant on Mount Street in Mayfair has reopened under the management of Caprice Holdings, the company which owns The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey. Stargazy pie is on the menu which looks like something out of Mrs Beeton: a fish pie with a puff pastry crust out of which appear the heads of four sardines, their eyes gazing upwards towards the stars. Apparently Sophie Grigson rediscovered the recipe which is from Cornwall and about 400 years old.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

London Islamic bond market

The world's first secondary market for trading bonds which comply with the Koran's laws on earning interest has been set up in London. Islamic law states that the creation of money from money is sinful and therefore forbids interest on loans and deposits. To be shariah-compliant, therefore, these bonds pay coupons from the profits of the underlying business rather than from interest. To my mind, this is rather pedantic. Anyone selling an Islamic bond at a profit would surely be creating money from money? Would Muslims not be able to trade them? The tax treatment also sounds suspicious. At present, the issuer of a non-Islamic bond is able to offset the coupons (ie interest payments) paid to investors against profits. An Islamic bond (also known as a sukuk), however, does not qualify for this relief as profit cannot be offset against profit. Apparently Ed Balls plans to introduce legislation later this year to let them get round that.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Churching of women

In his sermon yesterday, Canon Michael St.John-Channell, a fine preacher, spoke about Candlemas which celebrates the presentation of Christ in the temple and the the purification of Mary after giving birth (which was a Jewish tradition). It used to be common practice for the Church of England to celebrate the churching of women as a thanksgiving after they had given birth and there's a section of prayers for this purpose in the Book of Common Prayer. With improvements in medicine, giving birth is now rarely thought to merit a special church service and the Canon has only performed it twice in his 29 year ministry.

Friday, February 02, 2007

All for one and one for all!

I'm re-reading The Three Musketeers after many years which is a ripping yarn. Dumas wrote it originally as a serial story for a newspaper which is why each chapter ends on a high note of excitement, leaving the reader desperate for more. The intrigue of the characters' differing loyalties is fascinating: each one is for the King (Louis XIII), the Queen (Anne of Austria) or the Cardinal (Richelieu). At one point, D'Artagnan's loyalties are divided. He is on a mission for the Queen and visits the Duke of Buckingham in London, to whom he renders a great service. The Duke offers him payment and D'Artagnan replies: "I think of Your Grace purely as an Englishman, an enemy whom I'd rather meet on the battle field than in Windsor Park or the Louvre. I won't of course allow this personal feeling to interfere with my mission which having started I mean to finish. But I'd like to assure Your Grace that you yourself have no reason to feel under more of an obligation to me now than you did when we first met."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of apes and men

I was reminded the other day of an exchange between the erstwhile Bishop of Winchester, Samuel Wilberforce, and Charles Darwin's friend, Thomas Huxley.
On Saturday, June 30th, 1860, six months after the publication of the Origin of Species, evolution was the topic of a meeting of the British Association. Seven hundred people showed up. An American, Dr. Draper, was to speak on the "Intellectual Development of Europe Considered with Reference to the Views of Mr. Darwin." He spoke for an hour, and then other speakers took off on the theme. A number of churchmen were on the platform, among them Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.
Wilberforce rose to speak. The great anatomist, Sir Richard Owen, had coached him. However, Wilberforce was not deeply grounded in the sciences. He castigated the theory with good humour and made it appear absurd. The crowd loved it. The agnostic Thomas Huxley had been coaxed into attending the meeting. Wilberforce, carried away with words, turned to Huxley with a mocking question. Was it through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?
The audience called on Huxley. He rose with defiance. Explaining Darwin's key ideas, he exposed what he claimed was Wilberforce's ignorance and error. He would not be ashamed of a monkey in his ancestry, he said. He would be ashamed to be "connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth."